For Russia, Christmas arrived several months early, when Ukraine ratified an agreement giving temporary autonomy to the areas of Luhansk and Donetsk and amnesty for Russian volunteers there. An eternity ago, when Russia initially annexed Crimea and supported rebels in Eastern Ukraine, this was the outcome Putin chose.
This previous spring, Russia’s aggression seemed irrational. What were they going to reasonably gain? The apparent answer: A few drops of oil and awkward access to the Black Sea, against economic sanctions that have now pushed the Ruble to dangerous lows and the ire of Nato, Europe, and the other satellites like Finland and Kazakhstan. Yet Russia continued to push when only future pain seemed certain. The question then became; how far were they willing to go? Were they going to invade Ukraine?
Full-scale invasion seemed even more ridiculous, yet Russia pushed right up to that point, (some would even admit, past it) moving whole divisions inside Ukrainian territory and opening up new fronts, like Mariupol. And furthermore, here we are, with a cease-fire that merely helps to decentralize the Ukrainian government in three years. To a casual western observer, the only plausible explanation is that Putin truly wants Ukraine on some passionate, nationalist, elemental level of his being, so much that he is willing to cut Russia off from Europe’s economy, alienate any true friends he has and swing whole swaths of his nation into poverty over rising food prices. Furthermore, it looks at first glance as if he has failed.
But this is where Baduk, or Go, comes in. (For those of you who don’t know how to play Go, learn.) Early last year The West approached Russia’s corner in Ukraine by tempting Ukraine with a membership in the EU. This was an easy opening in The East’s defenses, brought by Russia’s dependence on high extended positions – their satellites, if you will. Russia, however, was not about to let The West uproot Ukraine without any sort of repercussions. So, Russia’s next move was to gently push back by pressuring Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, to clamp down on western supporters within his country, and withhold interest in an EU membership. At this point in time, it was business as usual in world politics, with different countries exerting safe, subtle pressures on their neighbors in the hopes of keeping a status quo where no one could rise as a legitimate threat to other nations.
Above, The West, playing white, realizes that Russia’s influence over Ukraine is more important when viewed as influence over the rest of Europe. Russia’s framework up unto this point seemed off-balance, but Russia always planned to be able to exert economic pressure on Ukraine, and in doing so solidify power over the rest of its outlying stones. However, as an up-and-coming economy and one of the three possible natural gas routes from Russia to Germany, Ukraine in Russian hands is too powerful an influence on the European economy. With the marked stone, Europe has attempted to cut off this Russian influence over Ukraine, and extend into the center of a Russian moyo. Russia’s next move, to pressure Ukraine, also functions as a signal to other nations, which in turn makes a white rebuttal crucial, to make it clear to Russia’s satellites that they can escape Russia’s orbit if needed.
Cue American funding to rebel groups within Ukraine, which destabilizes the country and proverbially separates it from the edge of the board. Now it’s on Russia to make sure it doesn’t lose it’s grasp on Ukraine. At this point, there is no hope in fighting it out and capturing the marked stones: America’s foray into the field has made sure that at least the eastern half of Ukraine is going to be part of the EU. Since the part that Russia had hoped to define in the future, on the second line, has just been defined, it is now imperative for Russia to get something else out of this. Russia needs to refocus on it’s principle strategy- economic influence over the larger board.
Instead of playing it safe, letting The West have Ukraine, and re-enforcing it’s control over an already weak economy, Russia funds the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk. In doing so, the EU is forced to take what openings it has and threaten a major invasion (in Go terms) into Russian territory, using sanctions. But the West can’t go all-out. If it severs all economic ties with Russia, it will leave itself open in the ensuing restructuring and force Russia to take something with equal or greater value- any chance of influence or territory in Russian satellite countries. Fighting with separatists is dangerous, but a practical ko battle involving dozens of points is insane. The EU is a loose organization: It can’t adequately empower it’s member states to make informed, unbiased decisions on the value of large swaths of territory. As a result, it moves slowly, safely, territoriality. However, this forces Russia to get risky, in order to form influence great enough to adequately mount attacks on tight European economic formations. Thus, above we see Russia sacrifice some of its own economic integrity in the hopes that its long-term successes in European markets will render early concessions unnecessary and slow for Europe.
Now that there is a cease-fire in Ukraine, it looks as if in the coming years Russia will be able to easily assert control over Eastern Ukraine, or “NovoRossiya.” The West may still be able to bring it inline with the rest of Ukraine, but that would be a waste of time and resources perhaps better spent on other things. Right now, it’s true, there are other fish to fry, and everyone’s going to tenuki. But over the coming months, The West’s ability to keep moving in on Russia’s economy will crumble, as every day that goes by strengthens the EU’s addiction to Eastern natural gas. Also, sanctions are a pretty paltry gesture in the short term, and a good Go player will likewise notice cutting points in the West’s wall that Russia will try to exploit by reorganizing its oil infrastructure and trading much more with developing markets in Africa and South America. And most importantly, over the long term, Russia might attempt to undercut white’s territorial groups. Give it five or ten years, and Ukraine will be ripe to escalate yet again, after other, more valuable moves are played.
That’s the value to likening this situation to Go- it develops in abstraction, so we can see that the bigger picture extends over decades, not months, and each move must be played when the time is right, according to the direction of play. While the world’s attention is devoted to ISIS and Ebola, it may not be the best time to spend resources on fixing the complex hierarchies in Europe. Also, the above is a joseki- an almost inevitable outcome given this exact situation, where both parties have equal access to all the information available, and are both reasonably versed in current strategies. From the beginning, when one move led to another, both parties saw the possible outcomes and forced each other to choose one that didn’t have a clear winner, even though Russia assumed more risk. In Go, this is a good outcome. Less so in real life, for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Ukraine, the millions in Europe with uncertain access to winter warmth, and the destitute Russian citizens.